Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Road To (and From) Claremont

With the opening reception of the Vexing exhibit behind me, I'd like to say a little about the way in which this experience has changed and is continuing to change me. Colin Gunckel and Pilar Tompkins put on a very ambitious exhibition, both in scope and depth. It reached out with long arms to people whose relevance to the East LA music scene was not obvious and thus sparked controversy; it plunged deeply into virginal archives to illustrate the beauty and creativity of an under-appreciated music and art scene.

Points of Departure, an installation by Jessee V. and Colin Gunckel, currently on display at the Claremont Museum of Art.

The road to Claremont was a difficult one for me. On one side of the LA River, I was perceived by some as betraying the Hollywood scene. To quote part of a nasty email: "I think it's kind of creepy that you'd sell out the old scene just to be down with a couple of dink bands." On the other side of the LA River, there was much discussion about who should be included in the show and which participants were perceived as outsiders.

Detail from "Do The Math", a 10' x 50' paint on canvas installation by Diane Gamboa.

To top it all off, there was an undercurrent of denial of the racist and sexist landscape against which punk played out. My statement to the LA Times that by 1979, some Eastside musicians felt that the Hollywood punk scene was closed and unwelcoming was seen as an attack on the integrity of that scene, despite the fact that some of the individuals interviewed in the Women in Punk section of my website mentioned that they themselves had difficulty breaking into the LA punk scene in the late seventies. The fact that Eastsiders were making the same assertion was interpreted as an accusation of racism and I was accused of "playing the race card."

I found this very insulting, so I deliberately set out to get some answers by questioning some of my friends who had frequented the Vex. I wanted to find out who had and who hadn't experienced racism in the LA Punk scene. Not surprisingly, the results were mixed: some people had racism to report while others did not, which only seems to prove that racism was not more concentrated in the punk scene than it was in the general population; neither was it completely absent. Some people felt it and some didn't. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a myth buster for some, who wanted to believe the Hollywood scene was a utopia. Even though I frequently say that I didn't feel discriminated against, my experiences are my own. I will not deny anyone the right to point out discrimination by belittling their experiences with a dismissive phrase like "playing the race card." This response is insulting and only discourages people from shedding light on discrimination. Racism is not a game to be played, nor is there any real victory to be won by bringing it into an argument. If whatever argument you are trying to make is predicated on perceived racial favoritism or discrimination, it's legitimacy will be called into question, so most people I know will avoid bringing race into the discussion at all. Many Latinos I know would rather deal with racism in quieter ways, precisely because they don't want to be accused of playing the race card. And that is how accusing people of playing the race card effectively silences anyone from bringing up issues of racism and supports the status quo.

The fact that the Vexing show ignited this discussion is a great thing. That is what art is supposed to do: challenge people, provoke, and raise uncomfortable questions. A week after the show opened, there is a new article in the LA Times where the question of racism in the LA punk scene is still being explored. This Vexing show has been like a much needed enema, so let's get all the shit out of our systems and see what happens.

Lysa Flores, Alice Bag and Gaby Godhead live at Vexing opening show, 5/17/08, photo by fauxtografer.

Being involved with the show has made me realize that even though I wasn't a regular at the Vex, the East LA scene did not exist in a vacuum. Hollywood's punk scene preceded it and other music scenes preceded that one. Like Tenochtitlan, where each culture is built upon a previous one, each artist, whether or not he or she knows it, builds upon a foundation that stood before them. Thank you to the young artists who helped me understand that. Thank you to the curators, who believed in the validity of my place in East LA punk history before I did. Thank you to my friends, who shared their previously untold experiences of racism with me. Thank you to all of those who continue to challenge me, disagree and/or agree with me; you make the road to and from Claremont a fruitful one.


Anonymous said...

this is a show that has sparked a lot of talk. there is an article in the la times today. i was thinking, at least people are talking more about this show and where people could play music, the masque was closed by the time the vex opened. i don't remember brendan mullen's name in the first article, but if it is going to get people OFF there arses and go see this show, BRAVO!

Adam said...

I'm a second wave punk who entered the Hollywood punk scene in late '81. I only made it to the Vex once in '83. They called it the Vex III because it was the third location change and from being there I could see why. From what I remembered, there must have been a cholo gang on every block and the low riders drove by and made fun of the punks and then a fight broke out between the punks and cholos later in the evening. I never went back there, even though the Vex was a really cool club. Racism did not play a part in it at all, what played a part was a difference of lifestyles misinformed by troubled youths.

Alice Bag said...

I just want take a moment to remind everyone that this is a place to discuss ideas, not people.

The best way to be heard is to listen. If everyone treats each other with the respect they want to receive we can share our thoughts in a safe environment and learn from each others' experiences.

So much of what I believe about hatred and discrimination comes not only from the experiences of those who share my culture, but from what I've studied about the Holocaust and the history of slavery in this country, as well as the bigoted treatment of groups of people all over the world.

The last comment where Adam writes about misinformation as a cause of what might be taken for racism is interesting because I think racism stems from both ignorance and deliberate misinformation.

I think that the question of feeling safe or unsafe in certain neighborhoods is something that's worth discussing. Let's keep communication open.

LouisJacinto said...

I never did The Vex. By the end of 1980, with John Lennon murdered, everything was over for me for a very long time. I'm just glad when I finally woke up 30 years later, The Bags were still the best punk band! Ever! And Alice Bag the best Voice! Always!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm sad to miss this exhibit, but not so much that I'm not glad to have left LA. When people hear my age, and see old photos of me, and know where I was in the late 70's and early 80's they expect me to be nostalgic for some lost utopia. I usually don't give them that. I thought the Hollywood scene was exclusionary. But not more so than the Vex or any other scene in Los Angeles around 1980. See, I was a white boy from South El Monte. Not cool enough to even be from East Los Angeles proper. I got turned away for more "cool" punk clubs than I can count, because I looked like trouble to people. I got mistaken for a skinhead an awful lot, but I never had a completely shaved head, and didn't really think of myself as a skin. Finally, by about 1983 I completely gave up on the whole thing, and left Los Angeles for a few years. I came back for a year or two in the early 1990's, and actually enjoyed a bit of the rave scene precisely because it wasn't as exclusionary as the punk scene was.
So, what I tell kids (and I talk with an awful lot of kids, these days) is that they shouldn't trust ANY of these "histories" because EVERYBODY has an angle. Everybody is dying to tell their stories based upon their flawed memories, even me! We all have an agenda, and we all want ourselves validated, and those who were against us invalidated. I see that stuff is still going on, and it's still the same old, same old. Believe me or not, agree with me or not, but I think the best statement so far is that it was ALL a footnote. I might have felt rejected by a bunch of folks back when I was a teen, but I'm middle aged now, and rather enjoying my life and my friends. I don't need validation from people who wouldn't remember me unless I reminded them, anyway. Just a thought for y'all.

charles said...

Excellent post going after the really tough questions! Racism is such a difficult topic to even discuss because we have yet to develop the tools to even talk about it… as if we were trying to build square house and all we have is twisted driftwood. Our deeply ingrained notions of race and racism are revealed when any time one talks about a degree of discomfort because of their ethnic identity today, one gets accused of “playing the race card.” Its no wonder Herron might not have felt at home in the Hollywood scene when the moment he mentions this today he accused of perpetrating some kind of reverse racism or revisionist history. On the other side, I think that it is a misrepresentation of Mullen to suggest the Masque was racially exclusive. I think he, and most of the folks in that scene, truly believed that it was an open, where individualism was prized more than racial identity. A deeper problem arises when the notion of individualism itself can be seen to be a kind of exclusive category. It seems pretty clear predetermined notions of race were at play in the minds of people. We tend to think about racism strictly as ignorant hate, which is quite easy to identify and even easier to condemn. The more difficult results and effects of racism come about from a lack of sensitivity regarding diversity and difference. For many, this isn’t necessarily racism, as Adam mentioned above, but a question of cultural difference, which is of course an effect of racism (which created ethnically restrictive neighborhoods, second class citizens, etc. etc.). I have deep respect for Herron for taking the initiative to create an alternative scene where he could feel comfortable. Of course, Mullen was doing the same thing when he started the Masque.

Thanks for posting this and maintaining your brilliant history of Women’s voices in the punk scene, which in and of itself is a testament not only to the openness that was a part of the early scene, but also the promise of it for the present and future.

Anonymous said...

I saw your performance Alice on opening night. You were amazing as always. thank you for performing Alice!